Sharon Kennedy – Catching a Winter Wave

When most of us think of winter, the last thing we think of is surfing the icy cold water of Lake Superior. We picture ourselves sitting before a roaring fire and wrapping our hands around a cup of hot tea or cocoa. Some of us might glance out the window and admire snowflakes as they gently fall to the ground. Still others might prefer reading an intriguing novel about pirate ships and the treasures that followed them to Davy Jones’ locker. But that’s most of us. It isn’t Dan Schetter, aka Surfer Dan, of Marquette.

As soon as I heard about Dan from a cousin who showed me a Facebook photo of a fellow who looked half-frozen, I knew I had to tell his story. Just seeing the picture sent shivers through me. Why would anyone look forward to the cold let alone a polar vortex and consider it one of the most perfect times to surf? The very idea seemed absurd. When the wind chill is factored in, the temperature can plummet to a dangerous negative 35 degrees F. During such frigid weather nobody wants to be outside and certainly not on the water. Nobody that is except perhaps the most notorious Upper Peninsula surfer.

Dan Schetter is a born and bred Yooper who would rather spend his days in the great outdoors than anywhere else. As a kid he did what most U.P. kids do. He swam, hunted, fished, shot hoops, and kicked a football, but it wasn’t until he moved to Japan that he started surfing. “I was about 15 when I moved to Okinawa to live with an aunt. My parents were splitting up and they wanted me in a more stable home. I was supposed to be attending school, but once I started catching waves, there was no going back. The warm water surrounding the Air Force base where my aunt lived was too much to resist. It wasn’t long before I was spending more time learning to surf than cracking the books. I learned to ride the waves with my body. As I became more confident, I rode boogie boards and fins. Now I can ride any size surfboard.

“Eventually I moved back to Marquette and started surfing Lake Superior. Non-tidal freshwater waves can’t compare to those of Japan or Hawaii, but I’ll settle for the smaller waves just to be on the water. I used to surf mainly at Presque Isle, but I like more of a challenge than it offers. Lake Superior is great because it’s the cleanest lake I’ve ever surfed.”

When I asked Dan why he surfs in winter his response was simple and straightforward. “I do it because there are waves and the experience is awesome!” I felt silly asking such a ridiculous question. Wouldn’t every surfer love to catch a winter wave? Well, no, I didn’t think so. With the obvious question out of the way, Dan continued. “Winter is the best time for waves. When I pick one and paddle into it, I’m aiming for a tube shot that’ll give me an ice beard like no other. I’ve had plenty of hypothermia, but no frostbite that I know of. I still have all my body parts although it can be difficult keeping my eyes cleared of ice without ripping out my eyelashes. Eyes are most vulnerable during a winter surf.

“My wetsuit is insulated and made especially for winter surfing, but it’s not water tight. You can imagine how cold I am when water seeps in. The trick is just to keep moving. Onshore wind combined with hail is the hardest to deal with when I’m paddling out. Surfing during a polar vortex is great because it doesn’t happen often and it’s breathtaking. It’s me against the elements. Some people might think it’s crazy to put my life in jeopardy, but I know what I’m doing. I wouldn’t recommend a novice surfing in freezing weather. It could be lethal.

“A few years ago Devon Hains took photos showing what I looked like after a polar vortex surf on Lake Superior in Marquette. My facial hair was frozen solid. From the look of it, you’d think it would take a long time to thaw, but sometimes if I dunk it in the lake a few times, the ice will fall off my beard. People ask if I can snap it off the way you’d snap an icicle in half. I haven’t tried that yet and don’t intend to. Booties and mitts give my feet and hands some protection from the frigid water. Sometimes when I get home, I’m not very cold and it only takes a hot shower to thaw out. Other times I’m almost dead from hypothermia, and it takes coffee, water, or a bowl of hot soup to revive me.

“When Devon posted photos of me on his Facebook page, he got some interesting captions like ‘Winter Forest Spirit,’ ‘Snow Yeti,’ and ‘Frozen Neptune.’ People find it hard to believe I can withstand the cold. It’s a challenge but it’s also exhilarating. I have the lake to myself and the waves range in size from 6” to about 15’. I’ve surfed waves when it was so cold the water had turned into ice cubes. I usually winter surf alone but sometimes I’m joined by a friend who’s willing to face the elements. I’ll go out any day depending on how bad I want to catch a wave.

“My advice to anyone interested in winter surfing is give it a try. It’s your life but if you know the dangers you face and you still want to do it, go for it. My philosophy about doing dangerous things changes as my circumstances change. Some days surfing is about escaping the constraints of society. Other days it’s about absorbing the beauty of nature that surrounds me. Sometimes it’s because I’m ready to check out. 

“For years I lived in an RV, but now an old school bus is my home. Until I get a woodstove, I rely on a propane Buddy heater to take the chill off the place. I don’t have a car so I depend upon friends to give me a lift when I need one. It’s tough hitchhiking anytime, but it’s really hard in winter especially during a pandemic. My living conditions aren’t the best, but they’ll do for now. You gotta do what you gotta do and make the best of things no matter how bleak they look. Everything’s open to change.”

When I asked Devon Hains for permission to run the photographs he took of Dan during the 2017 polar vortex, he didn’t respond, but the photos can be found on his Facebook page which is open to the public. They’re amazing and well worth the time to check them out. Although Dan does not receive residual income from them, he’s a fearless adventurer. I wish him well as he looks forward to another winter surf on Lake Superior.   

If anyone is interested in sponsoring Dan and sharing potential profits with him, he can be reached at upsurferdan@gmail.com.

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